Review: The Last Kingdom

Posted: August 30, 2016 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Bernard Cornwell, Fiction, Books vs. Shows

Bernard Cornwell is one of the master storytellers in historical fiction today. I first learned about Cornwell via his Sharpe series based on his books, which take place during the Napoleonic wars (when the show first came out–this probably dates me). Sean Bean played the title character, and after watching the first episode I was hooked, watched the rest of the series, and then had to go back and read Cornwell’s books. When I learned he was writing a series about the formation of a unified Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th Century, I started with THE LAST KINGDOM and have been keeping current with the series ever since.

So imagine my glee when I learned there is a TV series for these books, too.

From “This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms. The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, who is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex (Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands) Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane. He certainly has no love for Alfred, whom he considers a pious weakling and no match for Viking savagery, yet when Alfred unexpectedly defeats the Danes and the Danes themselves turn on Uhtred, he is finally forced to choose sides. By now he is a young man, in love, trained to fight and ready to take his place in the dreaded shield wall. Above all, though, he wishes to recover his father’s land, the enchanting fort of Bebbanburg by the wild northern sea.”

The Saxon Tales series may not be fantasy, but it has many of the elements that endeared me to fantasy novels in the first place: horses, swords, romance, castles, forests, war, and all that goodness. Cornwell is a an experienced author who can not only pull his readers into another time and place, but he endears us to characters real and imagined.

The best part of the books is Uhtred himself, he’s easy to like, despite his foibles–or because of them. He has drive, he’s fearless, and has a lot to learn. As the series progresses we watch the steep learning curve Uhtred experiences as he discovers men’s (and women’s) motivations, and the terrible fallout that results. His rash naiveté and teasing often gets him into trouble. But it is so fun to watch, and now we get to enjoy it on the screen. Uhtred may not be a historical character like others in the series, but his role is still important. Alexander Dreymon plays Uhtred, and looks, talks, and swaggers just as I imaged from the books… so now when I read the books I hear his voice (yes, I’ve read enough of you naysayers who say he’s miscast, but I think you’re wrong). A majority of the casting is great. The script is translated well from the books, which helps us understand the characters the way dialogue should.

The result of writing a lot of historical fiction during wartime, Cornwell has mastered the art of battlefield storytelling. More fantasy writers need to read his stuff for pointers. I love the details, explanations, and experiences via Uhtred and the fights he’s involved in and witnesses. He gives these scenes a realism of time and place without feeling flashy or excessive. The TV series brings to life the details of Cornwell’s writing in a way that makes how they fought and lived feel authentic, the visuals give a sense of time and place.

It helps that Cornwell’s prose lays somewhere between utilitarian and elegant. In fact, you hardly notice it at all, instead all of your attention is on Uhtred’s antics and the surrounding scenery. Cornwell provides enough detail to set up the readers in the time and place, without too much world-building exposition, descriptions, or distracting metaphors. His prose is nothing fancy, and that’s OK; in fact it makes the books easy, quick reads. I also love the humor and Uhtred’s candid observations. The way Cornwall has written the series makes it easy to translate to the screen, without having to worry about voiceovers or backstory. It’s straightforward storytelling.

Bernard Cornwell is one of the master storytellers in historical fiction today. If you aren't watching or reading THE LAST KINGDOM you're missing out.

I’m a terrible reader when it comes to politics. If you read my recent review for LARCOUT (EBR review), one thing that bothered me most about the book was how confusing the politics were. I don’t suffer that same problem with the Saxon Tales books. Sure politics exist in the series, but via Uhtred’s PoV, the politics become more about individual motivations and behaviors. That I can understand. The music in the series is a mix of electro modern (synthesizer) and haunting vocals, and adds a certain tone to the setting. It reminds me of the music from the movie Ladyhawke; some people thought it was weird, but I liked it. However, here we have the added bonus that Rutger Hauer is in both the movie and the first episode 😉

However, the TV series isn’t perfect. There are historical enthusiasts who’ll find problems with the production and the way it uses armor, weapons, words, etc. The books don’t follow history perfectly (Cornwell admits this), and the TV series takes even more liberties of history and the books as a result of trying to cover too much story in too short of time. These are the same problems with any translation to the screen, and some series devotees will be grouchy about it. I say: be happy it’s on the screen at all, and that it’s an original story being told long before Game of Thrones or Vikings came onto the scene.

I’m sure you’d enjoy the show without having read the books; but the books are worth it, too, maybe more so.

  • Recommended Age: 15+ for the books and the TV series is rated TV-MA
  • Language: Alternate uses (for example, 'hump' instead of the f-word)
  • Violence: War and blood of the violent variety
  • Sex: Referenced and brief nudity in the TV series, as well as rape

Find this outstanding series here:

Books: The Saxon Tales (aka Saxon Chronicles, depending on which edition you buy) – Amazon Kindle lists the series in order (click each one for other editions).

Show: Currently available on Netflix and at Amazon on DVD. Season 1 (8 60-minute episodes) covers the first two books of Cornwell’s series: THE LAST KINGDOM and THE PALE HORSEMAN.

If interested, try the Richard Sharpe Adventure series, too (be aware the books/order are somewhat different than the show; personally I enjoyed the show best):

Books: Amazon

Show: Amazon


  • Amy says:

    Thank you for the age rating on your book review. Wish you didn’t have Elitist in your title; who truly likes elitists except themselves 🙂

  • Edwardwww says:

    I’m surprised by how high in regard you hold Bernard Cornwell. For me, it’s just another fast food reading author, nothing of the sort of fine alchemists of the genre like Umberto Ecco, Frank Baer or Robert Graves. I read the full series of the dux bellorum, the “warlord chronicles”; the first one was a decent reading… it was, in fact, the best I’ve read from him; the remaining two were disastrous. Derfel, if extrapolated to modern times, would only need an AK-47 and two ammunition belt crossed at chest level to be named as Rambo. He is literally invincible and flawless in every battle; his only serious wounds would be self inflicted; he basically overcomes every foe in his way, he’s the champion of virtue and guardian of loyalty, and that is simply unreal. Life is composed of victories and defeats. I had the impression (though I’m not a historian, just an enthusiastic amateur) that more than half the historical details poured in are invented or false, and that is not only due to the fact that it is set in the British Dark Ages. In fact, the numerous clichés I found were so Hollywood-shaped, the character’s behaviors and Netflix-level dialogues were so actual, so simple, uncomplex and stereotyped to modern times, it seemed to me a plain and simple current story with changed costumes. If your goal is to pass pages and get entertained, it may fit your purposes. Anything larger than that will simple fall short in every Cornwell’s plot in this series. He maybe wanted to transmit a hardened Arthurian picture than the ones of Chretien de Troyes and Chauceur’s romanticized tales have given to us, but it looks like a narrated comic or manga, nothing more than that.

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